The Leadership Continuum: the correct use of power

November 8, 2023

Nigel Girling

Head of Professional Qualifications
Graphic showing the Tannenbaum & Schmidt ‘Continuum of Leadership Behaviour’

For any leader, a natural reflection point might be ‘how much power do I have in this role?’

This can be an important question when trying to understand boundaries, levels of authority and responsibilities, particularly in complex environments.

The acquisition of further power and authority is similarly often viewed as a worthy aim in its own right, especially by the aspirational and competitive leader, keen to impress, to win and to move on up the ladder.

Consider though, how the acquisition, demonstration and retention of power is viewed by others.

To peers, it may be seen as grandstanding, land-grabbing or muscle-flexing and could be viewed as a competitive or hostile act – certainly a political one.

To upper management it may appear as a threat, as showing off or as the act of someone just ‘out for themselves’.

To the leader’s own team perhaps it is most dangerous of all. If a key aim of leadership is to develop team capability and improve team and individual performance (and it is) and when a majority of employees in the UK are not engaged, then retaining control and refusing to empower members of your team is at best a short-sighted act – and quite possibly one of the least intelligent decisions a leader can make.

The Leadership ‘Continuum’

More than 50 years ago, two academics explored this in great depth. Their names were Tannenbaum & Schmidt, and their conclusions became known as the ‘Continuum of Leadership Behaviours’ or the ‘7 Levels of Delegated Freedom’. It is rarely discussed in leadership thinking these days and may even be viewed as ‘outdated’.

This may be unwise.

Like so much fundamental leadership theory, we’ve known about this piece of ‘human nature’ for decades and yet so many of us refuse to accept it or continue to ignore it.

While much has changed significantly since this research was first conducted and this thinking published, the essential traits and acts of human nature have not changed. Nor are they likely to any time soon. This is how we are ‘wired’ as a species.

The research by Tannenbaum & Schmidt showed that the leader’s typical position on the continuum’s seven levels had a very significant impact on the level of engagement and commitment of the team and its members and was central to whether the team could grow to become high-performing.

In essence what it’s indicating is this: If you are in the right ‘place’ on the continuum, then your team is likely to perform, to engage, to feel motivated and to get better. If that’s the case, you will have succeeded as a leader.

But if not…

The seven levels are actually comprised of two distinct – but invisible – stages, as shown below:

Graphic showing the Tannenbaum & Schmidt ‘Continuum of Leadership Behaviour’

1. Tells. Manager takes decision and announces it – All power is retained; no team involvement

2. Sells. Manager decides and “Sells” the decision to the team> – power still retained; but team may feel slightly more engaged

3. Suggests. Manager presents decision with background ideas for the decision and invites questions – team knows what options manager considered for the decision; more team involvement and understanding

4. Consults. Manager presents provisional decision & invites discussion– team are part of the decision; they feel they can influence it during the discussion

5. Joins. Manager presents the problem or situation, get suggestions, then decides – team feels consulted and that their views matter; manager decides on the best option

6. Delegates. Manager explains the situation or problem, defines the parameters and asks team to decide on the solution – manager delegates the decision to the team; but is still accountable for the outcome

7. Abdicates. Manager allows team to develop options and decide on the action, within the manager’s received limit – delegated freedom; team operates as the manager does at level 1.

The difference between leading at stage 5 and moving to 6 is extremely significant.

• At stage 5, the manager retains ultimate decision-making authority. The team feels consulted but doesn’t have to take personal or collective responsibility for the decision or it’s outcome. The team is unlikely to learn or grow from the process and will be operating as a ‘critic’ rather than an ‘actor’. The level of ‘buy-in’ to the decision will vary between team members and may be minimal.

• At stage 6, the team makes a conscious choice and will feel responsible for the decision. While the manager will stand behind their decision and will be held accountable, the team will know that the outcome is because of the choice they have made. They will have been put in the position of a leader and asked to think and weigh-up the options as if they were the manager. It may be the first time they have operated as a collective and they are likely to learn and grow as a consequence. They will have been trusted by their manager and given delegated freedom to decide.

The difference between stages 5 and 6 is stark. Psychologically, stage 6 is an entirely different perspective and requires far greater trust between manager and team. The thought process the team must go through is at a far deeper level and the considerations more numerous and more complex. Most important of all, the team have had to consider the options from the point of view of the whole team and its stakeholders, rather than individual preference, attitude and perspective.

At stage 7, this goes further still, enabling the team to become effectively ‘self-directed’ and to act independently of the leader. The leader can then adopt the role of coach and mentor.

These last 2 stages are clearly higher-risk than the early stages of the continuum – and therefore tend to be the province of the managers of experienced and highly-skilled teams.

In some sectors however, this is actually the default approach – for example, in professions such as medicine, law or science – where the members of the team may have far greater technical expertise in many situations than are possessed by their designated ‘leader’.

How to use the Leadership Continuum

The point the contemporary leader must take from all this is that the position taken on the continuum should be a conscious and situational choice, according to the capabilities of the team with regard to the specific situation or decision required.

It is never a case of choosing a preferred or ‘default’ position and just staying there. No position fits all needs.

The stage on the continuum must always be a judgement based on risk, capability, desired outcome and the anticipated impact it will have on team motivation and engagement.

Sometimes you will undoubtedly need to be at the early stages, but not all of the time. One of the most damaging mistakes any leader and manager can make is to be at 1 when they should be at 6 – closely followed by being at 6 when they should be at 1.

Empowering a team that isn’t capable, motivated or ready could be disastrous. But failing to empower a capable and committed team is likely to disengage them and make them want to leave.

You get the results your choices deserve.

The questions which remain are these:

• Are you brave enough as a leader and manager to push to regularly reach levels 6 and 7?

• Do you want your people to develop and grow and to be more engaged and committed?

• Are you prepared to trust and empower your team to that degree?

And most important of all: If the answer to any of those questions is ‘No’… then why not?

Where does the problem lie? In you?… or in them?

Once you’ve decided the answer to that…

Take action to change it and create a better tomorrow for you and your team.

About the author:

Nigel Girling is a visionary leader and educator with more than 40 years of experience leading successful organisations and teaching leadership development. Widely recognised as a thought leader in his field, he is an Honorary Ambassador for the Chartered Management Institute, and has delivered countless keynote speeches and written hundreds of articles for professional and academic publications.​

Before joining IDG, Nigel spent 12 years as CEO of The National Centre for Strategic Leadership and is a former member of a Government Task Force Steering Group on Employee Engagement.


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